Council requests review of Horse Center

Options on its future to be discussed Feb. 10

January 30, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Council has asked for another financial and management review of the Horse Center, and plans next month to weigh options, including closing it, selling it or using the property for something else.

The council declined to discuss the Horse Center's fate at a budget work session yesterday. It plans to wait for a presentation on options for the facility at its next meeting, Feb. 10.

"I think that we are going to explore all the alternatives," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, the Long Reach council representative and the budget committee chairwoman. "We have to."

The Horse Center, used by about 600 of Columbia's 87,000 residents, has lost an estimated $1.5 million since 1986, and has come under scrutiny by the council in the past year because of its financial losses.

Two members of the center's advisory committee, including the vice chairman, resigned this month amid concerns about the facility's management, finances and horse care. The head of the center, Kaye McCally, also resigned, and the barn manager and several barn workers have left. Columbia Association officials will not discuss the circumstances of the staff departures.

CA's aquatics director, John Herdson, has been named interim manager of the Horse Center.

Rob Goldman, CA's vice president for the sport and fitness division, said he would present a revised budget for the facility at the council's next meeting -- two weeks before that body is expected to approve a spending package of about $50 million.

"We're going to redo the budget based on where we are right now," Goldman said Friday. "I hope to be very, very objective on the 10th and bring the council all the facts on exactly where we are."

Goldman said the assumptions of a long-range plan he devised for the Horse Center last spring -- under which the facility was to break even for the first time after six years -- would have to be modified as well.

That plan was in part what prevented the council from closing the center last year.

The facility has fallen well behind the goals of that plan, according to CA's proposed budget for fiscal year 2001, which begins May 1. Though the facility is expected to surpass income projections, it is also expected to have an additional $190,000 in unanticipated expenses.

The proposed budget includes $132,000 in capital expenditures at the center, which provides lessons, boarding, camps and therapeutic riding, and is funded in part through fees Columbia homeowners pay to the association.

At a public hearing on the budget last week, Beverly Vattimo, the Horse Center advisory committee chairwoman, suggested eliminating some of the proposed expenditures, including $15,000 for a barn addition, $5,000 for a new sound system and $3,000 for new jumps.

The barn addition is no longer needed, she said, because of the recent decrease in horses there. At least 10 horses have been removed from the facility since mid-December.

At that same meeting, Alex Hekimian, a former Columbia Council member, called for CA to shut the center, calling the financial losses "unacceptable" and saying it was time to "get out of the horse business."

During debate about the Horse Center's fate last year, Goldman said it would cost more to close than to continue operating it because of fixed administrative costs CA assigns to each of its facilities.

It is unclear how much the 88-acre center is worth, or how else it could be used.

Daniel P. Bednarik, who resigned Friday as vice chairman of the advisory committee, fears that CA's recent troubles at the Horse Center will prompt the council to close it altogether.

"If any one facility is going to be justified in shutting down, it'll probably be that one," he said.

He has suggested that the association lease out the center.

Goldman said Friday that he could not comment on that option because he had not discussed it with the council.

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